Every era has its creations, some heralded as masterpieces, others declared to be wretched waste. Then comes the next era, the next generation to look back at what came before and ask – what the fuck were they thinking? And in this vein I’m here toe embark on this odyssey of entertainment, watching films ranging from summer blockbusters to cult classics, trying to figure out what holds up and what should be left to be consumed by the sands of time.
Another column, another black and white film, this week we go back a decade from the last adventure of “Young Frankenstein” to the 1962 film adaptation of the brilliant novel “To Kill A Mockingbird”.
When I came upon this I got super excited, because this is probably my favourite book of all-time and the film doesn’t disappoint. I doubt there’s much point in me explaining the story of the book to you, but just in case, the film’s essentially about two kids in the South (Jem and Scout) living their lives as their father defends a black man falsely accused of rape.The way that this film works is that it’s mostly divided into the kids’ adventures and the court case, only occasionally crossing paths.
Starting with the childhood half of the film, in most film/TV the kids end up being super annoying and pointless in film. BUT, these kids are absolutely fucking adorable and their adventures through childhood are super nice and heartwarming. This innocence and friendship of these kids through these seemingly innocuous scenes just feels like nice, harmless fun. Interestingly enough, this is the side of the film that is the most changed from the book, in the book there’s way more conflict and multiple subplots in this part. The film still feels complete without them and the characters of the children and world-building are still strong. But at the same time, these cuts mean that there’s no real progression in terms of the children and their characters and relationships. In the book, the children have their conflicts and the ideas of growing up and Scout struggling with gender roles. But this film skirts over those powerful things meaning that instead of the relationship and journey with the kids being a deep commentary on childhood, it becomes shallow and impactless with a cutesy veneer. The performances of these kids are all great, perfectly fitting the roles written for them but their characters just feel stagnant – a snapshot of childhood that never really changes, which is a complete perversion of what this part of the book was.
On the other side of this film is the court case, which is the side which I would argue stuck the most to the source material (with one notable exception that I’ll talk about later). The film very clearly shows the antagonistic nature of the Cunninghams, and how abhorrent their racism is whilst still maintaining some degree of their humanity. A key example of this is how in one scene, a lynch mob comes to the jail where Tom Robinson is being held, fully ready to lynch him but it takes the innocence of Scout to stop them. The caveat which spoils this, is that it requires a small white girl’s persuasion to prevent this mob, not feelings of righteousness or an erasure of their racism which is something powerful that the film puts across well. Throughout the film (especially during the court case), Gregory Peck plays the role of Atticus exceptionally well, having the presence to be a powerful character whilst still being very understated. My only criticism would be that he seemed far too young for the role, Atticus’ age was constantly referred to, yet there was no real visual indication (through look or physique) of his age. Beyond that, the court case itself is fantastic, Atticus is shown to be a brilliant lawyer, defeated only due to the clear and demonstrable racism of the jurors. The film manages to find the happy medium between the trial being dry and being melodramatic, giving us something entertaining to watch. As with the book, he’s (falsely) convicted and goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Whilst this is acknowledged as being and injustice, it still feels somewhat rushed but that’s the nature of a film adaption.
One thing I did have an issue with, was the way that Tom Robinson’s death was presented, it just seemed to minimise the impact of it. Whilst the film does present the death as being tragic, the film neglects to mention the seventeen shots noted in the book which would the race-fuelled excessive force. Beyond that, the reaction to his death (as little as there is), feels like it’s chastising him for making a stupid decision as opposed to sympathizing with an innocent man desperate for freedom. It’s like the weight of this death has been taken away, which is something that shouldn’t be happening, especially when Robinson is one of the two metaphorical mockingbirds within the film and the novel (the other being Boo Radley). The rest of the film ensues in a similar fashion to the book, ending on a high-ish with a touching scene between Scout and Boo Radley.
Ultimately the film ends up feeling like a To Kill A Mockingbird Lite, getting many of the main beats on a surface level, but missing the deep and rich nature of the source material that made it so good.
Does it hold up?
Much like the book, this film ages incredibly well, handling themes that still stand to this day. As long as you’re willing to deal with the black and white, age should be no object for watching this film. It’s perfectly watchable – if a little disappointing.